The National Academies

TCRP A-46 [Pending]

Quantitative Procedures for Designing and Operating Ferry Transit Services

  Project Data
Funds: $100,000
Staff Responsibility: Dianne S. Schwager



Ferry transportation services play an important role in many municipal and regional transportation systems throughout the United States and have the potential to play an even greater role.  Ferries serve urban centers, island regions, and rural areas that do not have bridges. They provide transportation for commute trips, recreation, tourism, and freight. Ferries have provided critical transportation in the United States during emergencies including natural disasters, bridge failures, transit strikes, tunnel flooding, and the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing.


The 2018 Bureau of Transportation Statistics National Census of Ferry Operators (NCFO) reported service in calendar year 2017 to 126.2 million passengers and 27.0 million vehicles. The ferry census was completed by 181 of the 224 known ferry operators in 38 states and several U.S. possessions. They reported 967 route segments and a combined total of almost 22,000 annual nautical miles. 


Based on the NCFO census, ferry ridership has increased nearly 10% during the past four years. In particular, a resurgence in ferry use has occurred in urban areas, including both New York and San Francisco, where ridership has increased and new vessels and terminals are planned. However, growing the ferry mode requires that transportation planners have good methods, procedures and information, allowing ferry plans to be developed and alternatives to be evaluated on a comparable basis with other transit modes.


A number of seminal reports on ferry services have been prepared since the 1970s that are of considerable value to the ferry industry. The Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) has developed three important resources for planning and operating ferry services.

  • TCRP Report 152: Guidelines for Ferry Transportation Services (2012), presents guidelines for planning, marketing, operating, and managing a ferry system as a component of an overall transportation network. The guidelines are aimed at policymakers who are considering ferry services as a transportation option, entrepreneurs who are considering investing in new or expanded ferry services, and existing operators who could use the “how-to” portions of this research. However, these qualitative guidelines require additional knowledge and data to apply them to the design and operation of an existing or proposed ferry service. 
  • TCRP Report 165: Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual, third edition (2013) presents a framework for addressing capacity for ferry services in North America along with selected material on planning ferry service presented in TCRP Report 152. Recognizing that little information exists, the manual’s quantitative methods are primarily based on theory. The TCQSM addresses ferry service and facilities, scheduling and service planning, methods for estimating vessel capacity of ferry berths and docks, methods for estimating passenger and auto capacity of ferry routes and terminals, and examples of applying the various capacity methods.
  • TCRP Synthesis 102: Integrating Ferry Services with Mass Transit (2013) presents state of the practice related to first/last mile ferry service and facility interfaces.

Research that pursues data and improves the TCQSM’s framework and procedures for ferries is needed to better serve existing ferry operators as well as communities considering ferries as a potential transit mode.




The objective of this research is to present key quantitative procedures for designing and operating scheduled and fixed-route ferry transit services and facilities that serve passengers-only and passengers and vehicles. The procedures should focus on ferry capacity concepts and analysis methods including but not limited to vessels, docks, routes, terminals, and intermodal connections. The procedures must consider in-water, navigation, and regulatory factors in addition to environmental impacts of ferry services. Development of the procedures should strive to provide comparable detail to the bus, rail, and station chapters of the TCQSM. The research should reference prior landmark ferry studies and global best practices.




Proposers are asked to develop and present a detailed research plan for accomplishing the project objective. The work proposed must be divided into tasks and proposers must describe the work proposed in each task.  Proposers are expected to present a research plan that can realistically be accomplished within the constraints of available funds and contract time. Proposals shall: (1) present the proposer’s current thinking in sufficient detail to demonstrate their understanding of the issues and the soundness of their approach for meeting the research objective; (2) identify data and data sources that may be used to undertake this research, and (3) propose a format(s) of the final research product(s). 


The research plan shall describe appropriate deliverables that include, but are not limited to the following (which also represent key project milestones):

  • An Amplified Research Plan that responds to comments provided by the project panel at the contractor selection meeting.
  • An interim report and panel meeting that should address (1) analyses and results of completed tasks, (2) the remaining research tasks, (3) an outline of the final research product(s), and (4) strategies for dissemination and implementation of the final research deliverables. The panel meeting will take place after the panel review of the interim report. The interim report and panel meeting should occur after the expenditure of no more than 40 percent of the project budget. Once approved by the panel, the interim deliverable should be suitable for public release and a possible webinar.
  • Final deliverable(s) that present the entire research with an executive summary. 
  • A webinar on the results of the research and the deliverables with a PowerPoint presentation.
  • A technical memorandum titled “Implementation of Research Findings and Products”

Status: Research in Progress.


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